Dawn Staley diary: ‘I got to coach with an edge’
South Carolina’s coach celebrates her team’s SEC title run and discusses her approach heading into the NCAA tournament
Throughout the season, South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley is sharing her thoughts with The Undefeated, chronicling a season that has been unlike any other in college basketball history.
In this installment, Staley discusses winning the SEC championship, continuing to be a voice for Black coaches in the sport and NCAA memories from her time as a player. South Carolina is currently 22-4 and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, which begins Sunday.
Winning the SEC championship marked the first time in a year that our team got to really celebrate something on the basketball court. It was cool because of how we did it and what we had to go through to get it. We felt like we earned it. We put the work in and we earned it, and that doesn’t always happen right away.
It always gives me great joy to sit back and watch our players celebrate in the moment – especially this season.
I had to do a postgame interview right as the clock was winding down and our players ran out on the court. As I was walking over, I looked back and walked backward just to watch them. They’re in their element. They are happy. They are dancing, they’re high-fiving, they’re hugging. They’re just appreciative of the moment. And I don’t even think they’re thinking about what they have gone through all season long. It was just them being able to buckle down and believe in each other and make that moment count for them.
When we lost to Tennessee on Feb. 18, it robbed us a little bit. And then we got back on it and got back to playing the way we wanted to play. We knew going into the postseason that we needed to sit down and talk to people that can put things in perspective.
I brought in Felicia and Johnny Allen. We’ve worked with this couple, who are skills coaches and motivational speakers, for the past, probably 10 years.
You’re around your kids a whole lot. I do think they’re listening during that time, but I do also think that sometimes the monotony of listening to your coaches can take its toll on you, that you almost needed a different voice.
It’s like when you’re growing up in your household with your parents, you don’t get it until you go outside of them and you go out into the world and these people are really saying the same thing. So then you think, ‘Hey, maybe my parents are right.’ We had that kind of moment. I think our players are more likely to be vulnerable in those sessions as well. It matters in those moments because if they really want to win, if they really want to get to understanding people and being understood, they have to be vulnerable.
The session before the SEC tournament was probably the best one. Aliyah Boston ended up texting me after her session and said, ‘That was good. This was really what we needed.’ And she left it at that. I didn’t ask any more questions because it’s theirs. I don’t want her to tell me anything that went on in that session, because some things are sacred to this place.
Nice people can’t win championships
In our games before the start of the SEC tournament, we just didn’t have a hunger. We were very passive in our approach to games, and I think that that was just from us having to always take somebody’s best punch at the start of a game.
I do think at times they are just relaxed. They’re in this place of, ‘OK, let me see what they have.’ Some boxers just allow their opponent to hit them just to see, ‘Let me feel their strength.’ I think our players approach it that way at times. It brings me back to one of the first questions I asked them when we were about to start the season: ‘Can nice people win championships?’
They said, ‘Yeah.’
I replied, ‘OK.’
I didn’t believe it, but I had to because they believed it at that moment. Then we had to give them constant reminders that nice people can’t win championships. They can’t. If you’re in a nice mindset, you get taken advantage of. And I know people took advantage of us at times throughout the season, especially in big games.
In one of our timeouts during our quarterfinal game against Alabama – we had a 27-point lead and Alabama had cut it to 7 – I’m just like, ‘If you think nice people can win a national championship, you’re crazy. You can’t even win the SEC championship playing the way we are playing.’
I challenged them and went at them a little bit to get them to hone in and play. From that time on, I thought we had the grit. We had the want to get it done.
Giving hope to Black coaches
A special part of that weekend was the love I got from Black coaches. Before we played Georgia, which was the first time two Black coaches were coaching both teams in the championship game, I received a bunch of text messages.
‘Keep Leading, Sis.’
‘What a proud moment that Joni Taylor and you are about to display.’
‘Keep being who you are, speaking out, keep letting them know.’
I feel like if I didn’t say anything about that moment, that wouldn’t have been the narrative – and it should very much be a narrative.
We can’t turn a blind eye to what hasn’t happened in our game. The representation that hasn’t happened in our game throughout the history of our game.
Am I lifting up Black women? I absolutely am. Am I tearing down other coaches, other white coaches or Hispanic coaches, or male coaches? No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m talking about the lack of representation, the lack of opportunity. When our Black coaches see something like this, I’m hoping it injects something in them to keep on pushing, to keep on doing what you’re doing to meet up with somebody that looks like you in a big game like it was. This had never been done before and we’re in 2021. That means there’s a lack of representation of Black women.
White coaches don’t have to say that. White coaches don’t have to say, ‘Hey, look at us. It’s two of us vying for a championship,’ because that’s the norm. That’s always been the norm, until 2021 when Joni and I did what we had to do to meet up. I prayed for it. I actually got on my knees and prayed for that, because it’s time. It’s time we see it. It’s time that we be examples for other Black coaches in this game. It’s just giving us hope that if somebody gives us an opportunity, we may bring this type of notoriety to our games.
And it wasn’t just Black coaches that reached out to me. Our game is not made up of people who despise what happened. I got text messages from the people in our conference that weren’t Black. They understand more so than any day because of what we’ve been through over this past year. They’ve got Black student-athletes that they’re coaching.
If you’re not a Black coach, you’ve had to have some conversations with how to help your Black players navigate through what they saw over the past year. So coaches are more woke than they were before. I think it’s a great thing. I think it’s beautiful when you’re able to recognize certain things that haven’t happened in our game.
Cherishing ‘stolen moments’
A few days after our SEC championship win, I got to spend the day with my sister. I loved that. We rode around, and just had a nice day in Columbia. We like to ride around and look at houses and do that type of thing – just enjoy it.
My sister is doing great. Her hair is growing back. It’s important. She was at the SEC tournament, of course staying away from everyone. Last year, during this time, she was sick and she didn’t know what was going on. But here we are a year later and she’s a bone marrow transplant recipient. It’s a battle each and every day, but we’re thankful.
Moments like these are simple, but these are stolen moments – you don’t get them very often. They’re important, to be able to decompress, to be able to just get your mind off of the hecticness of the season. Certainly, if we didn’t win the SEC tournament championship, I probably wouldn’t have been able to enjoy it as much.
As a player, I had always looked forward to playing in the tournament. We were a team, for three of my four years we were national champion contenders. The thirst to get one was a priority. That is all I thought about. I didn’t think about awards, I didn’t think about any of that stuff. I just wanted to win a national championship. I think I deserved one. We didn’t earn one, but we deserved one. I think it wasn’t meant to be. But I gave it my all.
I don’t look back on it and think, ‘I wish I would have done this.’
Well, maybe one possession. Maybe two.
The national championship against Tennessee in 1991. Tennessee tied the score at 60-60 and we had the ball with about six seconds left. My team inbounded to me at the opposing baseline and I’m racing down the floor. I got past pretty much everybody and, in my mind, I was like, ‘How am I going to celebrate?’ I’m thinking, ‘This is it.’ I think I went right to left, took my two steps and was making my left-hand layup, and then Dena Head, the person I beat, just kind of blocked it. I thought she fouled me, but they’re not going to call it in that situation, and I’m thinking I should have pump-faked. They were going to foul me in that situation, and the way she blocked my shot, she would have fouled me, I would have gone to the free throw line.
A year later, against Stanford in the Final Four, we had the ball down one in the final seconds. The ball went out of bounds somehow and then the horn went off. The officials just kind of trotted off, like, ballgame. I ran in the tunnel and got the officials. I went into the tunnel and said, ‘No, we have more time on the clock.’ They came back, put 0.8 seconds on the clock. I remember Stanford putting in Angela Taylor. She hadn’t played the whole game, so she was cold. We had one possession. I made my cut to the ball, got the ball and just flinged it up from 26 feet. If I had stopped, if I had just stopped in the middle of my cut, she would have fouled me and I would have gone to the free throw line.
Obviously, I had some great moments in the NCAA tournament, but the two that stick out the most are those two in which I should have just had better sense. Those games were 30 years ago and I can see them pretty clear, and I don’t think I have a strong memory.
As much as I try to preach to our players that during the postseason you got to be the same team you were for the majority of this season, I admit I get a little tense during this time of year. I’m more animated and more demanding of attention to detail. And Lord knows, don’t let me get the coffee with a shot of espresso. It is on.
I do think our players like it. I do think it helps them and jolts them into where we need to be, because again, they can revert back to being nice. They compete. They compete in practice. It’s not like they aren’t competing. It’s just, they don’t play with an edge. So I got to coach with an edge and I got to create that edge for them because people are going to come at them. They’re going to come at them.
I think this year’s tournament is wide open, I do. This has not been a normal women’s basketball season – top teams have lost a handful of games and lost to teams that were unranked.
The NCAA tournament is anybody’s game. And if it’s anybody’s game — why not us?